Benue: Titus Zam discusses bailout; the procedure, challenges and solutions

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Hon. Titus Zam

While supervising the disbursement of bailout funds for local government workers at the ICT Center of the Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs last Sunday evening,  Mr. Titus Zam, Special Adviser, Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs gladly obliged to an interview by the Spean Adviser on Media and ICT, Mr Tahav Agerzua.

Read excerpts below:

Where are we on the disbursement of bailout funds as at 5pm on Sunday, November 8th 2015?

We are disbursing the N15.5 billion bailout funds given to us by his Excellency, the Governor of Benue State, to take care of the backlog of salary arrears left behind by the past administration which he inherited. So far we have disbursed for April and March for primary school teachers and as I speak to you we are disbursing January and February arrears for them.  When we complete disbursement for primary school teachers hopefully by tomorrow, (yesterday) we will now come back and disburse to local government staff the remaining two months plus, I say two months plus because their arrears cover a period of four  months, January, February, March and April; besides, there are pockets of arrears for 2011, 2012, and 2013 which we are going to clear with the amount from the monies approved to us by the Governor of Benue State. At the moment we are focused on the ones for the months I mentioned in respect of 2015 and so after that we will still look back and capture the arrears.

Why has it taken so long to finish the disbursement?

The procedure for the disbursement is a bit scientific, it’s not a matter of picking money from a particular point and throwing it into individual workers’ accounts. You will recall that there were two schools of thoughts as to how the funds will be disbursed, some people were of the opinion that these funds should be given to the local government arrears for onward disbursement to Local Government Staff while others suggested that money should be given directly to the individual local government accounts and we have chosen the second option which is electronically paying money into the individual local government staff accounts, reason being that local government areas have all manner of indebtedness and challenges that require financial attention. Possibility exists that if you pass these monies wholesome, some local government workers may not get their due. Some local governments may have no problems but many will have problems that may lead to touching the bailout funds. But you and I are aware that this money is meant for a special purpose which is payment of salary arrears, so it makes better sense to adopt the e-payment procedure which we are going through now. The little delay we are experiencing is as a result of two major reasons. First, the volume of money, N15.5 billion to be disbursed to up to 40,000 workers, representing primary school teachers and local government staff is not a small task. The system is working in such a way that we at the Bureau headquarters are disbursing to the direct salary accounts of local government workers and primary school teachers through the electronic payment system. There is a system called the Interswitch, the central medium through which this money is disbursed and then they now share it amongst individual workers through their bank accounts in various banks in the Federation. Take for example you, Tahav, you are a staff of a local government area and you bank with Union Bank, the next person banks with First Bank, and all of that. We disburse these funds into your own account through the Interswitch process. It is their duty to now distribute these monies according to the individual workers’ accounts. We at the Bureau here at the ICT Center are to identify your bank, identify how much you are supposed to collect and then send the money to the central control system known as Interswitch who are now going to distribute this money to the individual worker. And so picking the account of individual workers here from 40,000 requires time. You have to be careful so that you will pick the correct sum of money, correct bank account and you also pick the correct bank so that monies will not miss their way as to where they are supposed to go. Secondly, the most critical challenge we are facing here is that since this is an electronic process that has to do with network (the air waves) sometimes for five to six hours the system is shut down, and we have no control over this system. So we have to sit down here for those number of hours waiting for the system to be cleared. This is a hitech technology that is beyond the immediate control of the Bureau of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, so that period that is taking us to wait sometimes gives the impression to those outside that we are not serious, but I tell you today being Sunday I have not gone out to worship my God. Yesterday, I did not go anywhere myself, the President of NULGE, Benue State Chapter, NUT Chairman Benue State Chapter, and the management staff of this office. We are all here and as you can see today, I am still here to ensure that the right thing is done. Let me use this medium to appeal to our workers to be patient, the Governor means very well for the workers that is why in the first place, he sourced for these monies to pay their arrears. The process may be cumbersome but the objective is for the benefit of Local Government workers and primary school teachers. We are mindful of the fact that this money needs to go to them and we have to protect it. So we demand of them patience and understanding.

Why did you not do table payment?

The table payment is not going to benefit the individual workers and so our major objective is to ensure the security of this money and to ensure that the individual worker gets his or her arrears. If you do table payment it will require carrying physical money from one place to another, there may be a security challenge. If you do table payment, there may also be a possibility of diversion from different layers through which the monies will be passing. It is better, safer and neater to direct this money straight to the account of the individual worker who has served the state and was owed this money.  It is neater and I think it is in their interest to support the e-payment system.

What have you done about complaints of people who died, were not captured, retired but have worked for this money?

We have taken steps to ensure that everybody who is supposed to benefit from this bailout benefits.  For the category of people you have mentioned, those that worked for this money and died, those retired, those that were not captured but are genuine workers, already a committee was put in place after the first verification exercise to look into those people who fall into this categories. Since money for specific salary arrears is not our problem now, we are sure the money that was made available to us will take care of every Benue worker who deserves to be paid. When we take care of the first set of people that were captured and pay them their money, those that were not captured for one reason or the other but we’re captured during the complaint verification we will pay them afterwards. Those that died but are supposed to benefit from the bailout will also be given their money through their next of kin. We will compile the list, already, we have asked for the list from the individual local government areas and the list will be taken care of. The reason why we are not doing all of this simultaneously with the payment of salary is that in the process their might be confusion, so we have set aside the monies for these category of people and we’re going to give them their money after we are done with the people who are alive, working and were capture in the field. I want to use this medium to also explain this point. Most of hose that are crying wolf are the ones that were disqualified in the field because of the nature of their employment. We earlier said those that were illegally employed will not benefit from this bailout funds because they are not genuine workers of Benue State and we cannot patronize them.  So if you hear complaints, try to separate those that are genuine complaints from those that are not genuine. The ones making the loudest noise are those that know themselves that they don’t stand to benefit from the bailout funds. There is also a political angle to this matter. The opposition will always make issues out of nothing. The very same people that refused to pay Benue State workers that made us to now go and borrow to pay workers are the ones inciting the people to complain. If for four months he did not pay Benue workers and you are out of office and the next government that comes into power has borrowed money I see no reason why such a genuine worker will be complaining. I think the voices your hearing from the field are not the voices of genuine workers of Benue State because they know Governor Samuel Ortom loves them and has taken this step to ensure that they get what was denied them under the past administration.

People complain that you made a submission for which funds were released, why do you insist on a verification exercise?

At any point you are using public money your first objective is to ensure prudence, accountability and honesty. Yes, we were guided by the facts; we were given this information by the previous administrationa, that is the number of workers in the local government system. From that figure we requested the Federal Government to intervene. But it was not proper for us to begin to verify at that early stage because we hadn’t the information of who is supposed to benefit and who was is not. Our major objective was to look for money and come and give the people who deserve the money.  Now the money has come. It is immoral, it is carelessness  and is wrong for us to throw these monies into the gutter just because some figures were given to us. It is a loan that must be repaid and so if you take a loan and don’t utilize it judiciously the burden of repaying the loan still rests on your shoulders, and so the Benue people must know that not every Tom, D!ck and Harry that claims to be a Benue worker will be given this money. The money will go to those that genuinely deserve to be given, not the people that were smuggled into the state payroll system, it doesn’t make any meaning collecting this loan that we are going to pay back within 20 years, then we allow it to go the way the local government funds were going in the previous dispensation. I think we owe it a duty to sanitize the Benue society especially the local governments where most of our people reside.

What about pensions and gratuities?

His Excellency the Governor of Benue State has said it time and time again that when he met the Presidency to intervene in these liabilities, the President only approved funds for the payment of salary arrears and the instruction to him was specific: clear salary arrears. The other liabilities he inherited including contractual commitments will be taken care of afterwards and so monies available to us from the Central Bank as approved by the President of this country are for salary arrears. But efforts are being made to approach the Presidency again to be given support so as to take care of the pension arrears that we inherited. So for now we still plead for time, we still plead for patience. Many people have come here suggesting that the money be shared between pensioners and workers, but If we do that the workers who are currently serving will have issues with us because the directive to us is to pay them their money and not to direct any kobo to any government programme or project. If we do that we will be violating the President’s directive and our own commitment to the Benue worker. That those not mean pensioners will not be considered, but for now first things first.

There is this allegation that you diverted N3 billion into your private account once this bailout came to the Bureau, what’s your reaction?

Those allegations have already been taken care of by the Governor of Benue State who publicly said that allegation is political, it’s not true and should be discarded. There is no way I could have diverted N3 billion from the bailout funds. At as the time the allegation was first made, the money was still at the Ministry of Finance and as at the time this allegation was thrown up into the air, the money hadn’t reached the account of the Bureau which the Governor had put me to preside over. I had not even taken delivery of the money, so how could I have accessed N3 billion?  I think that was in the imagination perpetrators of fraud from the previous system that we inherited when it was not news for such monies to be diverted. During the Ortom administration it is not not even possible, the control mechanism put in place and such that you don’t even have such access. Those peddling this rumour are the ones who are guilty of those practices when they were here. The mistake they are making is that they are telling us that if they were the ones sitting where I’m sitting this is what they would have done. But I thank God, it is not possible for me to have done that. It even conflicts with my principles as an individual and my oath to the government and people of Benue State where I promised to be transparent and accountable. Like I earlier said the Governor of Benue State has responded to that, I did not touch a dime, I will not touch a dime and I shall not touch a dime of any public funds that are brought before me.

From your projection when are you going to complete the first phase of this exercise?

The next three days at most, today is Sunday, am here, by Monday, 9th, Tuesday is 10th, Wednesday, 11th, we should have completed the first phase of those who are going to get. But I want to be very careful in giving these dates because as I earlier said the process of disbursement is electronically determined. It is not something that I can pick manually from this point to the other, it depends largely on the workings of the  electronic process but the way we are going, having taken care of  primary school teachers, by tomorrow, (Monday) we will finish that of local government staff.  I think in the next three days we should be able to take care of everybody inspite of the systemic challenges we are going through. Three days we should be able to do that.

How are you able to get feedback, how are you able to know that these monies have hit the accounts of individual workers?

There  are two ways of generating the feedback. The first is from the individual workers, when you disburse, let’s say to Makurdi local government for instance, and the workers there get the  alert through their phones they call you and tell you  that “oh thanks, we have gotten our money”.  That is the first way of getting the feedback. The second one is, it’s the electronic  system, once the money is delivered there is a feedback on the system.  If there is a failed transaction the system still indicates.  You see on the computers that a failed transaction has occurred and then you know that this money didn’t get to the required destination, and then you continue to press the bottom for the money to go.  If that fails as a result of the network or the account is dormant or maybe because the individual did not put the correct number of his or her account, you will now allow the individual  worker to forward the correct information or you find a way of reaching  them through their heads, either the Education Secretary, in case of teachers, and Treasurer in case of local government workers to note that such a transaction has failed, and then the individual worker needs to come forward and supply the needed information. So these are the two medium for which we are assessing the situation and getting feedback.

Let’s be specific, I’m from Ushongo, what’s the situation of the workers there with regards to this payment?

In Ushongo Local Government, I know of fact that primary school teachers have been paid April and March 2014 salary arrears.  Local Government staff too have been paid for the same period.  As I speak to you we are going back to pay the remaining two months being January and February. Those months are to be paid before we go to bed this night.  When we are done with those four months for the primary school teachers, we will go back and pay the remaining two months for the local government category.  After which as I earlier said we will look further beyond 2014 and see those months that for one reason or the other they were not paid by the previous administration.  Time was here In Benue State when people were paid quarter salary, half salary depending on the thinking of the godfather of those days. The situation is not too clear, that is why we are having some of these challenges, and so the figures keep changing you know.  Some local and departments were paid and others not paid.  The same local government, some will be paid half salary, others will be paid quarter salary. It’s difficult for you to get the exact picture but we are on top of the situation.  We have continued to request for the relevant Information from the relevant quarters and they are being given to us.  That’s the reason why you have been hearing of people not been paid the correct amount of money.  Some people because they were given quarter salary they expect to be given the other 1/3rd or 1/4th, some were given half and they expect to get the other half.  We are computing all of these, and we will take care of them as a group. if you take individual cases as they appear there will be confusion. So we are compiling complains, genuine ones will be attended to.  Let me use the language  of general Gowon “money is not our problem now”. We  have N15.5 billion  in our kitty and Governor Ortom says he is not going to touch a kobo out of it as the money is for local government areas of Benue State.  Every kobo will be given out to the individual worker.  It’s  a matter of patience.

What have you done about the health departments that were behind?

They have been paid. They have been given their July salary alongside August.

As things are now, where do you stand on local government salary?

Local Government salaries were paid for the month of August. When we collect  the October allocation we will take care of September.  There is a small history about this.  I earlier said something somewhere, that when the new Government came on board, His Excellency, out of kindness decided to pay local government salary one month behind. He came in June. Remember he was sworn-in on the 29th of May, and he assumed duty on the 1st of June or thereabout. He didn’t start paying salaries from June, he started in May. The allocation for June was used in paying May salary, he got July, he paid June, he got September he paid August, now when we get October we will pay September.  That is where we stand. So when people give this impression that local governments are owned two months, it’s very misleading information.  Now that we have gotten October allocation, we are going to use it to pay September.  It is because of the lack of funds.  We met with the NUT and NULGE leadership that from August when we noticed a sharp drop in the allocation to local governments and indeed Benue State as a whole, we met with the union leaders and resolved to be taking care of each of these categories installmentally. How do I mean? For this current month of October for example, we are going to pay only primary school teachers. For the September allocation that we got  we only paid local government workers.  So by November when we take we will now pay local government staff.  So we will be alternating between these two sectors. If resources permit we will take care of all of them at the same time, but as resources did not permit for this month, we will only take care of only the primary school teachers. Local Government last month, primary school this month we will go that way until God brings succour.

When there are insufficient funds, why don’t you combine two months and pay one month completely for everybody?

No, one sector will wait for too long.  Remember that the economic situation in the country is generally harsh. So if one sector is to wait for two months, majority of these people will not be there for you.  Some for health reasons, some their children will miss school.  So it’s better to alternate than to compact.  If they had to wait, then those that will wait will have to wait for 60 days. In the face of the harsh Economic weather we are facing, that will be too punitive. It’s better to wait for thirty days.

Do you have any other comments or advice?

Yes I do. My first comment will be that these arrears were inherited. Yes, government is a continuous process no doubt, but somebody was in the saddle and he didn’t pay your salary.  Somebody else has taken over government of the state and has gone out of his way to source for money, to go and borrow and pay you.  Good conscience demands that you appreciate such a person.  Good conscience demands that you should be patient.

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